Ha ha ha, fathers, amirite? They’re completely incompetent buffoons who have no idea how to care for children, and are totally incapable of learning! It’s not their fault, poor souls, they’re trying! They’re just helpless when it comes to dressing, feeding, and otherwise nurturing the children they help create. This is why mothers have to do everything forever, the end.
If that sounds sexist and ridiculous to you, it’s because it is.
It is also an idea I run into a lot in the wide world of parenting, and an idea with some pretty serious consequences for all involved.
Check out this piece from Scary Mommy. On the surface, it’s just one of those cutesy write-ups about a funny moment in the world of having a kid. A parent out there in parenting land had a funny moment, shared it on social media, and now we all get to laugh along because haven’t we all had some funny moments? It’s a little bit of relief from the exhaustion and the constant pressure that parenting very young children can entail. Look, we’re all laughing together!
Except, the buoyant laughter is hiding the sinister underbelly of gender roles, sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.
If you didn’t click the link (hey, I don’t blame you) the story is this: a father was tasked with dressing his infant daughter for daycare, and sent her in overalls without a shirt underneath. When the mother texts him about it, he explains that he dressed her in “that thing” and that he was ignorant to the tradition of wearing shirts with overalls. The mother is, understandably, exasperated and amused, and shares the text exchange. In the comments, other parents (all mothers) share related stories of their co-parents (all fathers) making hilarious wardrobe mistakes. One dad dressed his child in a robe meant for a stuffed Yoda doll, another in clothing from the Build-a-Bear Workshop (clothing which included a tail hole).
The joke, in all of this, is not just that it’s kind of funny that all these kids went out in public in truly ridiculous get-ups. It is kind of funny! The joke is that this happened because they were dressed by their fathers. And fathers, it seems, may be great at playtime and taking the kids for ice cream, but they just don’t know about clothes. These types of stories are shared by mothers (in heterosexual relationships) and the conclusion is that women are just plain superior at this whole parenting thing. On the surface it can look like (and feel like, to the women involved) these kinds of jokes hold mothers up and recognize their greatness. But none of this is actually uplifting to mothers, because it’s firmly couched in benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism, in case you are unaware, is sexism that sounds like it’s saying positive things about women, but ultimately is used to subjugate women and enforce strict gender roles. The first time I heard the term was while reading this series about Christian dating books (content note for discussion of rape and sexual violence at the link!). Benevolent sexism can be just as dangerous and harmful as hostile sexism, and men who believe in benevolent sexist ideas often quickly turn hostile when women don’t stay in their place.
I can’t say this enough, “traditional” gender roles hurt people. Especially when children are involved, they are just one more method to maintain the set up of the nuclear family. The nuclear family was created by and for capitalism and patriarchy, and that is all it is good for. Nuclear families keep us isolated, they keep us overworked, they keep us from meaningful connection even within the family unit, and they keep us functioning as consumers in wider society.
A joke that sounds like it’s taking a cheap jab at men (haha, they can’t even dress their babies!) is, once we scratch the surface, just plain old patriarchy all the way down.
Men can’t dress their babies, therefore women have to dress the babies, therefore women are constantly consumed with childcare, therefore women cannot access other meaningful work.
Men can’t dress their babies, therefore men are only suitable as providers, therefore men must provide and women must do all the caring and nurturing.
In the original “joke” that we started with, the baby was being dropped off at daycare by her father. That, to me, strongly implies that both parents work outside the home, possibly both work full time. Yet, it also implies that the father is not used to dressing the baby, that it is somehow the mothers jurisdiction. If both parents work outside of the home, for roughly the same amount of hours, one might expect that they would divide up the childcare and household tasks more or less evenly. Yet this is almost never how it happens. In heterosexual marriages, we see again and again that women who work are also expected to fully manage the children and the household whenever they are home. We’ve taken the original nuclear family model, and altered it slightly to include women making an income, only we don’t see men picking up the slack at home. Instead, women are told to strive to “have it all” and men maintain more or less the same breadwinner role they would have enjoyed in a nuclear family without a working spouse. And in the comments on that “joke” we see several mothers supporting this by essentially saying “see, this is why I don’t let my husband dress the baby anymore.”
And on top of all of that, it’s also just plain unfair to fathers. Fathers are human beings who are actually, contrary to popular belief, fully capable of caring for children. They are capable of learning how to change diapers and how to dress a child and all of the other things one needs to know. They may start out a little bit behind, because those of us who were raised as girls in the world were encouraged early to take an interest in nurturing and care-taking, whereas our male counterparts often weren’t (and in some cases it was even actively discouraged). But they can catch up! I can think of several fathers (some of them live within walking distance of me) who are every bit as full and active of parents as their female co-parents. It isn’t fair to them, or anyone else, to pretend like dads can’t do this stuff.
So maybe that guy confused a pair of overalls with a romper, so what? Was it a stupid mistake? Sure. But it’s not something innate, and it has nothing to do with the gender of the parent who screwed up.
And by the by, these ideas aren’t only used to subjugate heterosexual women! This idea that men parent exclusively one way, and women parent exclusively another way, has been used on the far right to condemn families like mine for years. In fact, during the endless debates about whether or not marriages like mine should even be allowed, some of these ideas were brought up as evidence in court. And years and years ago, someone who knew very well that I was gay, literally said the following to me:
“You’re going to get married before you have kid, right? Because don’t you think all children need a mother and a father?”
The subtext being, of course, that men and women vary so much in their parenting styles and abilities that I, a gay woman, should marry a man for the good of my future offspring.
But children don’t need a mother and a father. Children need parents who care enough about them to learn how to get them dressed in the morning.